The Buddhist idiom “monkey mind” does not require years of contemplation to understand. It explains itself quickly to anyone who attempts the most basic meditative practice: closing the eyes and concentrating solely on the breath. By the second or third exhalation, your attention will have shifted -- if not to an itch, or the aftertaste of your most recent meal, then to some memory, plan, song lyric, etc., and then to another, until you remember to focus on the flow of the breath.
Whereupon it will all start up again. The human mind, in the Buddha’s words, moves “just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go, only to seize another….” The simile is all the more fitting given that he spent years meditating in the forest. (I take it by implication that the mind also makes shrill noises and scratches itself a lot.)
Twenty-five hundred years and a good deal of laboratory research later, Michael Corballis’s The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking (University of Chicago Press) has little to say about taming, much less transcending, the restless mind. Corballis, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, wants to reconcile us to the mental flux through a review of scientific research on the neurobiology behind ordinary awareness. From his perspective, wandering attention is necessary and even beneficial for humankind, in spite of the disapproval of authority figures for countless generations.
Central to the author’s approach is what he calls “mental time travel” -- meaning, in part, the human ability to remember the past and anticipate the future, but also (more importantly, perhaps) our capacity to shift attention away from immediate experience for considerable periods while focusing on our memories, plans and worries.
This power is a blessing and a curse, and Nietzsche suggested that it gives us reason to envy the beast of the field, which “springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus is neither melancholy nor weary.”
But that’s just human vanity talking. A variety of methods are available to record the flow of blood and bursts of neural activity within the brain -- and some can be used on lab animals as well as hospital patients. Corballis reports on experiments with rats that have learned their way through a maze to a feeding spot. The effort sets off “sharp-wave ripples” among the brain cells dedicated to tracking a rat’s location. But the activity may continue even after the rat is done, “as though the animal is mentally tracing out a trajectory in the maze,” the author says.
Perhaps this is not so surprising, since “for a laboratory rat, being in a maze is probably the most exciting event of the day.” But there’s more:
“These mental perambulations need not correspond to the paths that the rat actually traversed. Sometimes the ripples sweep out in a path that is precisely the reverse of the one the rat actually took. It may be a path corresponding to a section of the maze the rat didn’t even visit, or a shortcut between locations that wasn’t actually traversed. One interpretation is that the ripples function to consolidate the memory for the maze, laying down a memory for it that goes beyond experience, establishing a more extensive cognitive map for future use. But mind wandering and consolidation may be much the same thing. One reason that we daydream -- or even dream at night -- may be to strengthen memories of the past, and allow us, and the rat, to envisage future events.”
On that point, at least, our difference from the humble rodent is one of degree and not of kind: the human brain undertakes (and absorbs information from) a much wider range of activity, but the same part of the brain -- the hippocampus -- serves as the hub for the neural networks that enable “mental time travel.”
What does distinguish us, of course, is language, which among other things enables storytelling and more complex forms of social organization than those possible for even the most sophisticated chimpanzee community. So the human brain finds itself navigating any number of mazes, many of its own creation. Zoning out while someone is speaking, then, is not a solely a function of overburdened powers of attention reaching their limit. The wandering mind is part of a range of phenomena that includes dreaming, fantasy, hallucination and creativity -- all of them products of the brain’s constant obligation to shift between levels of experience and directions of “time travel.”
Corballis makes the point with a range of biological, medical and anthropological references in a casual style that sometimes just barely holds things together. One or two chapters might have been removed without it making much difference, as would the jocular bits about whether the reader is still paying attention. (“Yes,” reads my note in the margin, “because irritation wonderfully concentrates the mind.”)
While interesting on the whole, the book leaves completely unaddressed the question of whether there is any difference between a mind wandering under its own powers, so to speak, and one that’s grown accustomed to constantly increasing bombardment. Where the monkeys used to swing from vine to vine, they now run the risk of colliding in midair, distracted by all the beeps and buzzes coming from their smartphones.
If you have a deep interest in natural history, then chances are Caitlin O’Connell’s name is already familiar. And if not: simply put, she’s like Jane Goodall, but with elephants.
The author’s note for Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse (University of Chicago Press) identifies O’Connell as author of “the acclaimed science memoir The Elephant’s Secret Sense,” from the same publisher, “and the Smithsonian channel documentary 'Elephant King,’” which I am going to watch just as soon as this column is done. For in fact the topic was of no particular interest to me before noticing Elephant Don, with its arresting and beautifully composed cover photo of several tuskers gathered on a dusty plane in Namibia -- a portrait of “the boys’ club,” as O’Connell dubs a roving group she’s studied in the wild for many years.
Portions of the book are adapted from postings to the New York Times’s Scientist at Work blog that the author wrote while also publishing more technical presentations of her findings in Ethology Ecology & Evolution, American Zoologist and other peer-reviewed journals. When not doing fieldwork in Namibia, O’Connell is an instructor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Her vita also lists her as co-author (with Donna M. Jackson) of The Elephant Scientist -- an award-winning children’s book -- to which Elephant Don is something like the grown-up’s sequel.
O'Connell's earlier writings, both scientific and popular, reported on research into elephants’ ability to communicate through their feet, via seismic waves. A bull in heat can “hear” the distinctive stomps of an amorous female and make his way in her direction. Elephants do not have a herdwide mating season. Mature individuals of either sex go into heat on their own cycle, for periods of four to six weeks, every five years or so. Without the earthshaking mating call, they might never hook up.
Why not? It’s a matter of gender politics: male offspring have a place in the herd until they reach sexual maturity. The surge of hormones turns the male calf into enough of a pest that the matriarchy pushes him out to fend for himself in a world full of predators and loneliness. (The men’s rights movement would be hard-pressed to adduce a more pitiful injustice.)
Elephant Don chronicles the life and times of a group of adult males who come to Mushara -- the watering hole where the author and her coworkers have established their observation post -- during several summers, beginning in 2005. The size and composition of the cohort change over time, but researchers can distinguish the animals by variations in size, tusk length and ear characteristics -- identifying them by nicknames that seem to become more comical from one year to the next, including Luke Skywalker, Keith Richards, Rocky Balboa and Captain Picard.
The de facto leader of the group -- the one who gets the best spot at the watering hole and decides when it’s time to leave -- is an old bull called Greg, also known as “the don,” for reasons that become clear after he takes his place:
“[The] subordinates line[d] up to place their trunks in his mouth as if kissing a Mafioso don’s ring…. Each bull approached in turn with trunk outstretched, quivering in trepidation, dipping the tip into Greg’s mouth. It was clearly an act of great intent, a symbolic gesture of respect for the highest-ranking male. After performing the ritual, the lesser bulls seemed to relax their shoulder as they shifted to a lower-ranking position within the elephant equivalent of a social club.”
The don bellows and flaps his ears to signal that it’s time to roll, and his loyal subordinates bellow in reply while making sure that the younger bulls don’t fall behind.
Hierarchy and communication are well-established aspects of life in the matriarchal herd, but O’Connell indicates that social order among exiled males is a much less studied topic. She observes other behavior that seems to express or maintain the leadership arrangement, such as one bull turning his back to acknowledge his subordinate position to another, or holding his trunk over a younger or smaller bull’s head, which seems to express camaraderie.
Another set of signs accompany the onset of musth, the mating phase, when a bull’s testosterone level shoots up to 20 times normal. He walks around in a state of constant arousal, dribbling urine and ready for action. Once in an all-male group, a young bull’s musth-driven aggression (fighting and mounting everyone in sight) will be met by shoves and head butting from his elders. O’Connell hypothesizes that such disciplinary action may cause “socially induced hormone suppression,” as happens with other species.
It doesn’t always work, and a couple of the book’s most dramatic chapters describe challenges to the don’s authority by low-ranking but high-testosterone young bulls. There is also a period when most of Greg’s entourage disintegrates under the stress of a drought, partially reassembling around his leadership when conditions improve later.
Giving the elephants human names, while a matter of convenience in recording their behavior, is already a step towards anthropomorphizing them, and the process is irreversible once you add narrative. That’s fine in popular exposition, since the stories O’Connell has to tell -- both about the elephants and about life in the field, with poisonous snakes and infrequent access to a shower -- are certainly absorbing.
But I wondered for a while if the ascriptions of personality and motive to her “pachyderm posse” might not embellish things beyond credibility. Only halfway through the book do we get a chapter reviewing scientific findings about elephants’ cognitive powers -- pages that put the question in a new light.
Seismic communication itself is pretty impressive, but elephants also have the capacity to solve problems (say, by throwing rocks or an uprooted tree onto an electrified fence to disable it) and to fine-tune tools: “In one study, for example, elephants were shown to use their highly muscular prehensile trunks to modify branches for optimum use as switches to repel flies.” Their proverbial memory may be superior to that of humans, and experiments have shown them to be able to understand iconic symbols and to remember distinctions for long periods.
So the possibility that they have rituals and a social order is not, on the whole, that much of a stretch. It’s enough to make you wonder what they think of us, assuming they even bother.
Because of my experience as former CEO of the Seagram Corporation, young business students and aspiring entrepreneurs often seek my advice on the best way to navigate the complex and daunting world of business. As college students begin to think about selecting their majors, they may be influenced by the many reports coming out this time of year that tell them which majors provide the highest post-college earning potential. Last month, PayScale released its 2013-2014 report, lauding math, science and business courses as the most profitable college majors.
My advice, however, is simple, but well-considered: Get a liberal arts degree. In my experience, a liberal arts degree is the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.
For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically -- to understand what people mean rather than what they say -- cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been a decline in liberal arts disciplines and a rise is pragmatically oriented majors. Simultaneously, there was a rise of employment by college graduates of 9 percent, as well as a decrease of employment by high school graduates of 9 percent. What this demonstrates, in my mind, is that the work place of the future requires specialized skills that will need not only educated minds, but adaptable ones.
That adaptability is where a liberal arts degree comes in. There is nothing that makes the mind more elastic and expandable than discovering how the world works. Developing and rewarding curiosity will be where innovation finds its future. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, attributed his company’s success in 2011 to being a place where “technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities … yields us the results that makes our heart sing.”
Is that reflected in our current thinking about education as looking at it as a return on investment? Chemistry for the non-scientist classes abound in universities, but why not poetry for business students? As our society becomes increasingly technologically focused and we build better, faster and more remarkable machines, where can technology not replicate human thinking? In being creative, nuanced and understanding of human needs, wants and desires. Think about the things you love most in your life and you will likely see you value them because of how they make you feel, think and understand the world around you.
That does not mean forsaking practical knowledge, or financial security, but in our haste to get everyone technically capable we will lose sight of creating well-rounded individuals who know how to do more than write computer programs.
We must push ourselves as a society to makes math and science education innovative and engaging, and to value teachers and education. In doing so, we will ensure that America continues to innovate and lead and provide more job and economic opportunities for everyone. We must remember, however, that what is seen as cutting-edge practical or technological knowledge at the moment is ever-evolving. What is seen as the most innovative thinking today will likely be seen as passé in ten years. Critical to remaining adaptable to those changes is to have developed a mind that has a life beyond work and to track the changes of human progress, by having learned how much we have changed in the past.
I also believe that business leaders ought to be doing more to encourage students to take a second look at the liberal arts degree. In order to move the conversation beyond rhetoric it is important that students see the merits of having a liberal arts degree, in both the hiring process and in the public statements of today’s business leaders.
In my own life, after studying history at Williams College and McGill University, I spent my entire career in business, and was fortunate to experience success. Essential to my success, however, was the fact that I was engaged in the larger world around me as a curious person who wanted to learn. I did not rely only on business perspectives. In fact, it was a drive to understand and enjoy life -- and be connected to something larger than myself in my love of reading, learning, and in my case, studying and learning about Judaism -- that allows me, at 84, to see my life as fully rounded.
Curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking -- which is developed in learning about the world around you, the ability to critically analyze situations, nurtured every time we encounter a new book, or encountering the abstract, that we deal with every time we encounter art, music or theater -- ensures future success more than any other quality. Learn, read, question, think. In developing the ability to exercise those traits, you will not only be successful in business, but in the business of life.
Edgar M. Bronfman was chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd. and is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life.
I’m not much one for reunions at my alma mater. But I did have a 25th reunion last month at one of my journalistic alma maters, so to speak, College of the Atlantic, the small, environmentally oriented, alternative liberal arts college located off the coast of Maine. It was one of the colleges I covered during my first tour of duty as a freelance education writer during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Like most of the stories I did during my early, gallivanting days, the one I did about COA began with a hunch. The little information I had about this remote, decade-old, solar-powered cousin of Bennington, Goddard, et al., was that COA offered a bachelor of arts degree in something called human ecology, and that staff and students spent a lot of time observing and tracking whales. I was intrigued.
And so, armed with an assignment, off I flew to Bar Harbor, Maine, for what turned out to be one of my most memorable assignments covering academe. I was immediately taken with the college’s Noah-like president, Ed Kaelber, and his vice president, Sam Eliot, whose environmentalist passion was leavened by a self-deprecatory sense of humor.
What moved COA’s founders to establish their college-cum-environmentalist colony back in 69?, I asked Eliot one blustery evening, as we huddled over coffee in his office in the college’s Ark-like wooden administration building. "Basically, we came out here to save the world," Eliot said. “Now,” he said with a grin, “we’re concentrating on Maine.”
And saving Maine the earnest eco-missionaries of COA were, via such inspired stratagems as a dead minke whale that had washed up near the college and had been converted into a mobile mammalian biology diorama for the benefit of the local populace. Whale on Wheels, it was called. COA students were largely responsible for preserving Maine’s Great Heath, an ecologically unique bog. The college’s Harbor Seal Project had helped rescue many abandoned or stranded seals. And the Department of Interior thought highly enough of the biologist Steve Katona’s course, Whales of the North Atlantic, to award his class a contract for the Mount Desert Island Whale Watch. With 180 students and 15 faculty members, classes at the spare, island-based campus were small, education an intense, hands-on affair. I never saw a faculty as inspired and committed as COA’s.
For the most part, classes at COA were as intellectually rigorous as anywhere, if not more so. Some people might have difficulty defining exactly what human ecology meant -- "it's … a seagull" said one misty-eyed student -- and yet COA students were making real connections between man and nature. Here, in December 1980, as the new materialistic morning of Ronald Reagan was dawning, was a college really dedicated to changing and, yes, saving the world.
To a sixties survivor that was bracing to behold. "If the deterioration of the environment keeps going the way it is now," in the prescient words of Glen Berkowitz, one of the many dynamic, clear-eyed students I met during my fascinating sojourn in Bar Harbor, "people will have to use COA graduates." He was right. (In fact, Berkowitz, who graduated in 1982, went on to become a senior consultant with Boston’s massive Big Dig project, where he advised the builders on the human impact of the dig, and is now involved with a wind power project for the city’s harbor.) He's but one of the many COA graduates who have used their unique education to do social and environmental good. Others include Chellie Pingree, head of Common Cause and Bill McLellan, a University of North Carolina research scientist who National Public Radio recently described as the federal government’s “go-to guy on marine mammal research.”
I had planned on a visit of several days. Instead I wound up staying for several weeks. My subsequent dispatch about “Earth College,” as I good naturedly dubbed the place, reflected my affection for the spunky laboratory school. "To be sure, the college needs a gymnasium and a student center," I reported. "But the College of the Atlantic is alive and well. That in itself is something to celebrate."
Privately, I wasn’t so optimistic. The future for alternative or experimental colleges, I well knew, was increasingly grim, having recently reported the demise of one of COA’s experimental siblings, Eisenhower College, whose lofty minded World Studies program and holistic educational philosophy was not unlike COA’s.
Hence my delight and surprise, upon recently visiting the college on the Web, to encounter an institution that, at least on the evidence of its kaleidoscopic site, was thriving. But Web sites can be deceiving. It was time to check out College of the Atlantic again.
And so, last month, just as I had a quarter of a century before, I set off for the college’s rustic, coastal Maine campus, next to Acadia National Park. Once again I found myself auditing classes, hanging out with COA students and faculty in the main dining room, listening to the swooning sea gulls, just as I did long ago.
My green reunion. Best reunion I ever had.
To be sure, I learned from some of the veteran COA faculty I met up with again, COA did wind up having its own Sturm und Drang period in the early 80s, including a civil war pitting faculty and staff who wished to keep the college as a college against another faction that wanted COA to become more of a think tank. The former won. However, enrollment at the beleaguered campus dropped to a mere hundred. "We almost lost the college," one teacher said.
Nevertheless, under the leadership of Steve Katona, the college’s savvy whale-watcher-turned president, who has been at the college’s helm for since 1992, COA has survived. Now, with an enrollment of 270 students -- over 20 percent of them from abroad -- and 26 faculty, COA is, indeed, thriving. Shedding the "experimental" label that once put off parents of prospective students, the pioneering institution is competitive with some of the best mainstream liberal arts colleges in the country, while the human ecology concept and educational philosophy that COA pioneered has gained respect.
On the surface, COA is no longer as "crazy" as it once was. The college has an eye-catching logo now, and an expensive viewbook. The food is no longer strictly vegetarian. COA’s ponytail is gone.
And yet, I could see, in the small, intensely participatory classes and laboratories I audited, and the interactions I had with students and faculty, that the college’s essence and mission is unchanged. Here, still, on this remote island, off the coast of Maine, is a community unabashedly committed to saving the world.
One professor, Davis Taylor, is an economist and former Army captain who attended West Point. He said that while at first blush one could hardly think of two institutions more different than West Point and COA, he saw similarities between the two. "Both have a sense of mission," Taylor said, and “both emphasize systems thinking.”
As one student after another, including ones from as far away as Serbia and Seattle, told me, “I came here to make a difference.”
In the best sense, I could see, during the rainy but otherwise mind-and-spirit expanding week I spent in Bar Harbor. It was clear in a horizon-busting class in environmental history, or an impromptu world music session in the college greenhouse. College of the Atlantic is still alive and crazy after all these years. And, for one of its early champions, and as one who believes that the greatness of the American higher education system lies in its multiplicity, that was reassuring to see.
I could also see that original spirit in a hands-on, feet-in conference in riverine planning that I (literally) waded into, where COA faculty, staff and local planners contributed to show journalists how it’s possible to affect a community planning system on an environmental and inter-county level.
So there I was one stormy afternoon hanging out with Bill Carpenter, the novelist and poet who has taught at COA since its founding 36 years ago, sifting the college's saga over strong coffee in his cozy, book-lined office. We had returned from an exciting, syncopated session of “Turn of the Century,” an interdisciplinary class in cultural history that Carpenter teaches along with the artist JoAnne Carpenter and the biologist John Anderson, in which the three professors enthusiastically riff off each other, in between questions from the packed, palpably delighted class of 25 (which for COA is huge).
“So, what was your original vision?” I asked Carpenter, as we reminisced about the college’s wild and woolly early days.
“This was our vision,” he said, with finality.
Here’s to survivors.
Gordon F. Sander
Gordon F. Sander, an Ithaca-based journalist and historian has written about higher education for The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times and many other publications.Â He was recently artist-in-residence at Cornell University's Risley College for the Creative and Performing Arts. His most recent book is The Frank Family That Survived: a 20th Century Odyssey (Random House UK).